Gray smoke rolled skyward and drifted along the tilled dirt, tangling around my feet and stinging my eyes. I had picked this field to cross because nothing grew in it, so I couldn’t imagine what the fire consumed. Pulling my shirt up over my nose and mouth, I trudged along with my head down.
I hoped I wasn’t trapped.
With so much haze in the air, blowing ahead and behind me, I almost walked straight into a thick swath of fire. Orange flickered at the base of a line of heavy black smoke rising into the afternoon, flashing warning lights. The leading edge of flames churned ahead in a straight line.
Making a barrier right across my path.
Realization dawning, I ran. Lungs heaving, eyes streaming, feet digging into soft earth, I caught up with the fire. Leaped across in its path. The scent of gasoline hung heavy in the air, assaulting my already overwork lungs. Clinging to my shoes where liquid soaked the earth.
On the other side, the wind blew the smoke away from me. Indifferent to my near escape, the flames crept along the gasoline trail while I stood with hands on knees, taking huge gulps of clean air.
Later, as I climbed the side of the valley, I got high enough to see the shape of the roads burning through the field. They spelled out words in huge cursive letters. Big enough to be seen from space.
The irony got to me and I laughed a little until I coughed up more sooty phlegm. I could’ve been trapped inside those lines.
If the fire starters wanted to message aliens, I sure hoped those aliens could read cursive.
Happy Spooktober to everyone who followed the #GrimList2020 drabbles and the spooky Hopeful Wanderer short stories this month. It was great fun to write these for you and I appreciate all the likes, comments, and follows they received!
My mouth was a weapon. One I could aim and fire at anyone. But once. Just once. Too obvious and the authorities would take me down.
Shouldering my way through the crowd, I grinned at the knowing.
So, so many people had gathered for our high school reunion. I hadn’t been invited, but found out about the reunion anyway. All these people who picked on me. Shunned me. They would make a perfect ground zero.
When I got to the middle of the gymnasium, lost in the crush of my peers all around me, I
As I passed through a night dark farm, the door of a wood shed near the farmhouse rattled from the inside. A voice from within yelled, “Let me out! Let me OUT!”
I stopped at the door, hand on the cold iron latch, but didn’t open it. “Who’s in there?”
Something heavy slumped against the inner door. “This farm’s guardian. A scarecrow.”
Raising an eyebrow, I asked, “What’s a guardian doing locked up in the wood shed?”
“The farmer gave up on the harvest. Stored me in here.” The voice sounded more angry than plaintive. A thump like a slammed fist made me jump. “I ask you, what’s a scarecrow without crows to scare?”
I shrugged. Unable to argue with that logic, I pulled the door open.
All at once, I was face to face around the edge of the door with a bright orange pumpkin, light from within casting two broad black exes for eyes in stark relief. Body made up of an orange raincoat and red shirt. A trail of holiday lights led away from the back of the scarecrow’s neck into the shed.
The scarecrow’s head tilted as it looked me up and down.
I raised my hands. “Easy…”
“You’re no crow,” the scarecrow observed. A warm scent like decaying pumpkin pulp drifted to me. “More of a wren, I’d say. Now I have work to do. Leave this land.”
The scarecrow thumped and jerked away, headed for the withered cornfield I had cut through earlier. The holiday lights clicked along the ground in its wake, until somewhere inside the shed, the cord popped free from the plug.
The pumpkin in the distance blinked. Blinked. And went out. The scarecrow’s silhouette vanished in the darkness.
Disclaimer: the following writing advice is base on the author’s personal experience of writing and does not represent any hard or fast rules. Your mileage may vary.
The Plight of the Back-loaded Writer
Do your sentences ramble with a bunch of important details attached to the the ends? Like the equivalent of remembering relevant information for the story you’re telling your co-worker, but only after you’ve told most of it. A lot of your sentences start off with simple phrases like “The dog ran to the house” but tack on all nuance later, such as:
The dog ran to the house like a streaking comet as if carried by angels under his feet.
These sentences are fine. You know they’re not great, but fine. Maybe a period or two could break them up into manageable chunks. But what of when each sentence looks like this? The details, clauses, prepositions, and such all dwindle toward the end. The subject>verb>object pattern always happens at the beginning. Over and over. Rinse and repeat.
When you notice your sentences always or often follow this pattern, you may begin wondering how to fix this. Add more punch. Sprinkle your sentences with style, like those writers whose sentences pulse through the page like magic.
Below, check out how to mix your dull and extraneous sentences up and bring them to life!
Enter: Subordinate Clauses!*
To recap your basic English lessons from middle school, parts of a sentence fall into two categories:
the main clause
the subordinate clause
Main clauses tend to come first and stand on their own, while subordinate clauses tend to come last and depend on the main clause to exist. Kind of like me with my relationship to my day job.
But subordinate clauses don’t have to come last. In fact, mixing up the order adds power to your writing. Not every sentence works better when mixed up so you just have to feel whether the rearrangement adds more punch to your intended meaning. (Spoiler: it almost always does.)
In the above sentence, the main clause appears in the form of: “You can pronounce spinach like stomach.” Subject = you; verb = pronounce; object = spinach. Subject>verb>object, the most basic building block of sentences. One we writers repeat over and over as we string words together to form meaning.
The subordinate clause takes the form of: “if you’re not a coward.” That’s a sentence fragment on its own, buddy. We know it depends on the details of the main clause to make any sense.
To switch up the boring usual order of this sentence, we can just move the subordinate clause to the beginning (and add a comma) to read like this:
If you’re not a coward, you can pronounce spinach like stomach.
Boom. Now I don’t have to read yet another subject>verb>object sentence after another.
Enter Also: Prepositional Phrases!*
Another sentence block that lends itself well to rearrangement is the prepositional phrase. Prepositions are the connectors that link the verb to the object, so any words like for,in, on, around, over, through, beneath et cetera.
Dictionary.com definition:a phrase consisting of a preposition, its object, which is usually a noun or a pronoun, and any modifiers of the object.
In the above example sentence, the prepositional phrase appears at: “for someone who does not teach writing.” Preposition>object>modifiers. Once again, this is a sentence fragment that cannot stand on its own without the main clause!
To switch things up, put the entire prepositional phrase at the beginning of the sentence (and add a comma).
For someone who does not teach writing, I spend an unreasonable amount of time devising of writing class topics, modules, and lessons.
Hid that subject>verb>object sentence order there in the middle again. Nailed it.
Enter As Well: Similes!*
In our sentence rearrangement endeavors, the final movable sentence block I want to discuss is the simile. You might remember similes from when you had to annotate poetry in high school. The easiest elements to highlight/underline and make yourself look like you knew what you were doing were phrases starting with like or as.
Because I could find ZERO tweets of mine containing any similes going back two years, and because I’m determined to keep things consistent, I tweeted this status just for the sake of example.
In the above sentence, the simile begins at: “like a pleb.” Similes are just comparisons, but they go great at the beginnings of sentences to usurp the subject>verb>object position.
Like a pleb, I just had to write this tweet for a blog example.
Better examples might look like: “He shot through the sky as fast as a speeding bullet” > “As fast as a speeding bullet, he shot through the sky.”
Basically, putting your as or like clauses first hints at the flavor of the main clause to come.
How I Learned This Skill
As mentioned above, back to back sentences all starting with the subject>verb>object pattern become tedious. They bother me to read, they bother me to write. I dislike seeing ‘the _____ (whatever noun)’ descriptor begin sentences again and again. Of course, those sentences matter as basic building blocks of communication. But they project more emphasis to meaning when used with intention.
Got any questions about rearranging sentences for better impact? Let me know in the comments below. If you have any stories about how YOU learned tricks for rearranging sentences, I want to hear them!
*Excessive exclamation points brought to you by recent excessive listening of enthusiastic podcasts.
We started sticking together when more and more of us disappeared each night. At first we consoled ourselves with the story that those who went missing had made it off the streets. Reconciled with family. Gotten clean. Begged enough to rent an apartment.
Until seven of the homeless community vanished at once.
Huddled together beneath a bridge, we didn’t realize we had made culling us easier until unmarked white vans pulled up, surrounding us.
Leaving my belongings behind, I scrabbled away before city officials could hem me in. Covering my ears to block out the screams echoing in my wake.
I fought against the tide of people shoving me from behind, pushed forward by indifferent forces funneling us into a featureless corporate building. I had seen creatives, my friends, enter this place and come out the other side wearing business suits and complaining about taxes. I knew what was coming, but I couldn’t escape.
As I stumbled through the door, I wished for the touch of guitar strings under my fingers.
Inside were cubicles as far as I could see. My mind drained of songs about life and happiness. Unresisting, I headed toward my designated cubicle. Purged of all individuality.